Columbine High School – A Community Defined by Unity

I’m pretty lucky.

I get to spend a large amount of my time hanging out in schools where people care really deeply about building inclusive environments where everyone feels safe.  Just this week I got to spend a day learning from some committed educators at the high school I graduated from, educators who are going above and beyond to serve traditionally marginalized students.

Most of the time when I’m working with a school, though, there is a laundry list of problems laid out by students, staff, parents, and administrators: cyberbullying, teachers feeling bullied by administration, students feeling bullied by teachers, students treating other students like crap, students feeling like no one cares for them in the building, etc.

Even if it’s a minority of voices, I can always find people to talk about the trials, the challenges, and the difficult stuff that the community is facing.

Thus, when I was asked to work with Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, I was pretty sure what I would encounter.  What I wasn’t sure about was how Columbine’s history would impact how inclusive it is today.  I had all sorts of preconceived notions about the community based in the media frenzy surrounding the community since the shootings there in 1999, but what would the community actually be like?

No matter what my expectations may have been, what I found was not at all what I expected…

Columbine is proof that when people dedicate themselves to inclusion and building safe educational environments, individuals can have a powerful impact.

In the case of Columbine, this spirit of inclusion grew out of tragedy, but it doesn’t have to be that way for your community.  Need tools for building an inclusive school culture and climate?  Look no further than CivilSchools.

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Educators: Investing in Student Achievement Means Investing in School Climate

While I was setting up for a recent bullying prevention presentation at a high school, a counselor expressed disappointment and frustration at some teachers’ reactions to having me come speak to their students.

“They don’t understand why we were spending time on an assembly and training like yours when we need to be focusing on achievement.”  It’s sadly a common refrain that I hear from teachers around the country.

And I get it!  Teachers are under tremendous pressure to improve test scores that measure very specific aspects of the student educational experience.  More and more, teachers livelihoods are one the line as districts tie teacher pay and teacher advancement to student achievement, a practice that is dubious in its research support to say the least.

But this is the environment in which teachers must practice their craft.  People are constantly looking over their shoulders, and teachers are under an incredible amount of pressure to ensure growth in their students’ “achievement,” as measured by districts, state tests, and federal measures.

Thus, I completely understand the laser-like focus on achievement data.

The good news is, though, that some of the lowest-hanging fruit in helping students learn and perform better in school is often the stuff that gets treated as “fluff” or “extraneous.”

Maslow’s On Our Side

In the most simple of psychology, we know that our basic needs must be met before we can care about more complex problems.  As it relates to education, how can a kid focus on the intricacies of balancing equations or diagraming sentences if they are worried for their safety or consumed by their feelings of loneliness within a community that’s supposed to accept and include them?

Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before students can focus on self actualization and esteem, two of the needs of Maslow’s hierarchy that are met through a rigorous and rewarding education, students have to feel safe and like they belong.

Simply put, one of the best ways to improve student achievement is to start by making sure all students feel safe and fully supported in their school environment.

Now, when it comes to their classroom environment, most teachers do a pretty good job of meeting this basic need.  They make sure that no taunting or teasing takes place during class, and they work hard to support all of their students.  However, school culture and climate extends far beyond the reach of one single classroom.

The Costs of Feeling Unsafe

That’s precisely why we need school-wide efforts to prevent bullying and to build inclusive school culture.

Approximately 30% of students are targeted for bullying behaviors, leading to them feeling unsafe and marginalized within the very community where they ought to feel safest.  Further, research from Penn State indicates that those young people who witness bullying are also unlikely to feel safe in their school environment, and the impacts can even last throughout the rest of their lives.

Thus, at minimum, 30% of our students aren’t having their basic needs of safety met because they’re being targeted for bullying, and when we consider the students who are adversely impacted by simply witnessing bullying, we know that a strong majority of our young people are carrying the weight of fear into school.

Read the rest at CivilSchools.

Being an UPstander to Bullying: First Responders

Ending Bullying Requires Addressing the Root Causes of Bullying Behavior.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working hard with a fantastic team to prepare for our pilot launch of A Culture of Civility, a comprehensive bullying prevention program for 6-12 schools.  I’ve long been passionate about finding more innovative and high-impact ways to address bullying in schools for two main reasons.

First, I was bullied heavily in late elementary school and middle school, so I know first hand the short-term and long-term effects bullying can have on young people.  Second, as a diversity and inclusion consultant, I’ve seen too many times with the way that bullying prevention approaches (whether formal or informal) treat bullying as if it is some sort of general problem requiring general solutions.

Quite to the contrary, bullying is a specific problem of student diversity that varies drastically from school to school.  In some schools, students might be more likely to be targeted for their race or their sexual orientation.  In other schools, students might be more likely to be targeted for their ability or disability.  Still in other schools, students might be targeted for their weight or body image or family income.

The point here is that there cannot be a “one size fits all” approach to bullying.  It does not and cannot exist!  Schools need to design school-specific interventions to their school-specific manifestations of bullying that bring the entire community on board.

Interested in Full Access to the Culture of Civility Program?

A Culture of Civility LogoPilot the program in your school in the 2013-2014 school year!  We’re still looking for 3-4 middle schools or high schools to pilot the program in the coming year.

Interested in piloting the program, simply fill out this survey, and we’ll be in touch.

“But what can one person do?” The Story of Audrey

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10 Keys for Creating an Inclusive Classroom for LGBTQ Students

Everyday FeminismThis week’s post comes via Everyday Feminism!  I’m definitely excited to have this piece published at a site with such a large community!

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Lately I have been facilitating a lot of professional development sessions for teachers on building inclusive environments for diverse student populations.

And one thing is clear to me: most teachers want to be as supportive as possible to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) students but aren’t sure how best to do so.

The unfortunate reality is that few schools are safe spaces for LGBTQ students:

  • 84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.
  • 63.7% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 27.2% reported being physically harassed and 12.5% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their gender expression.
  • 72.4% heard homophobic remarks, such as “faggot” or “dyke,” frequently or often at school.
  • Nearly two-thirds (61.1%) of students reported that they felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation, and more than a third (39.9%) felt unsafe because of their gender expression.
  • 29.1% of LGBT students missed a class at least once and 30.0% missed at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns, compared to only 8.0% and 6.7%, respectively, of a national sample of secondary school students.
  • The reported grade point average of students who were more frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression was almost half a grade lower than for students who were less often harassed (2.7 vs. 3.1).
  • Increased levels of victimization were related to increased levels of depression and anxiety and decreased levels of self-esteem.
  • Being out in school had positive and negative repercussions for LGBT students %96 outness was related to higher levels of victimization, but also higher levels of psychological well-being.

(Source: GLSEN 2009 National School Climate Survey)

As a result, more and more teachers are looking for help in supporting their LGBTQ students, and schools are looking for proactive ways to create a safer environment for students of all sexual orientations.

To try to offer support, I have compiled a list of 10 things teachers can do to create a more inclusive classroom environment for LGBTQ students.  Though these can in no way be comprehensive, they are meant to be a starting place for better supporting our LGBTQ students in the classroom environment.

Read the complete list at Everyday Feminism.

A Particular Kind of Teacher Appreciation!

Happy National Teacher Appreciation Week!

If you’re reading this, I want you to pause and thank a teacher!  Whether it’s through a text message, a phone call, a facebook post, an email, a long snail mail letter, a carrier pigeon, or a tin can telephone, take a bit of time to thank a teacher who you know is getting WILDLY rich changing the lives of young people every day.

I used to be a public school classroom teacher, and in a lot of ways, I think I was a pretty good one.  I worked hard to make lessons interesting, and my students not only learned a lot of cool stuff, but they learned a lot of important skills along the way.  No, I wasn’t the best teacher in the world, but I’m proud of the work that I did.

Most of the time.

As I reflect back over my work as a teacher, there is one area of my practice of which I’m not very proud.

I taught in a school that practiced almost total “inclusion” when it came to special education.  That means that with the exception of a few students who were diagnosed “Educably Mentally Handicapped” (a term used to describe students with severe mental disabilities), any students with disabilities participated exclusively in “regular education” classes (meaning that they were learning in classrooms with students who didn’t have disabilities).  Because our school was under-resourced and because I taught Social Studies (in which few students have special education instruction spelled out in their legal Individualized Educational Plan), I didn’t often have a special education-certified teacher in the room to help.  Instead, we had the philosophy that “all teachers are special education teachers.”

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10 Keys to Creating an Inclusive Classroom Community for LGBTQ Students

Lately I have been facilitating a lot of professional development sessions for teachers on building inclusive environments for diverse student populations, and one thing is clear to me: most teachers want to be as supportive as possible to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) students but aren’t sure how best to do so.

The unfortunate reality is that few schools are safe spaces for LGBTQ students.

  • 84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.
  • 63.7% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 27.2% reported being physically harassed and 12.5% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their gender expression.
  • 72.4% heard homophobic remarks, such as “faggot” or “dyke,” frequently or often at school.
  • Nearly two-thirds (61.1%) of students reported that they felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation, and more than a third (39.9%) felt unsafe because of their gender expression.
  • 29.1% of LGBT students missed a class at least once and 30.0% missed at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns, compared to only 8.0% and 6.7%, respectively, of a national sample of secondary school students.
  • The reported grade point average of students who were more frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender expression was almost half a grade lower than for students who were less often harassed (2.7 vs. 3.1).
  • Increased levels of victimization were related to increased levels of depression and anxiety and decreased levels of self-esteem.
  • Being out in school had positive and negative repercussions for LGBT students %96 outness was related to higher levels of victimization, but also higher levels of psychological well-being.
    Source: GLSEN 2009 National School Climate Survey

As a result, more and more teachers are looking for help in supporting their LGBTQ students, and schools are looking for proactive ways to create a safer environment for students of all sexual orientations.  To try to offer support, I have compiled a list of 10 things teachers can do to create a more inclusive classroom environment for LGBTQ students.  Though these can in no way be comprehensive, they are meant to be a starting place for better supporting our LGBTQ students in the classroom environment.

The Ten Keys to Building an Inclusive Classroom Community:
Supporting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Students

  1. Use inclusive language
    – Use precise terms like Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning (LGBTQ) rather than homosexual or gay as an umbrella term.
    – Use terms like partner instead of boyfriend and girlfriend or husband and wife.
  2. Never tolerate abusive language in your classroom or in the halls
    – Language like, “That’s so gay” or “You’re such a fag” is common in schools, and it actively creates an unsafe environment for LGBTQ students and LGBTQ Allies.  We must respond to (and be sure not to ignore such language).
    – Don’t simply be punitive with hurtful language.  Instead, explain why it is not welcome and is hurtful.  This helps students understand why they shouldn’t use the language rather than just making them avoid using it around you.
  3. Never assume heterosexuality
    – Building relationships with students is wonderful!  Ask about students’ lives, but don’t assume heterosexuality in your language.  A question like, “Are you seeing anybody these days?” goes a lot further than, “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?”
  4. Maintain confidentiality within the confines of your professional responsibilities
    – There are certain things like abuse that we cannot keep confidential, but outside of that, make sure students feel safe by always keep what they share in confidentiality.
    – Create a space in which students can talk to you about their struggles, helping all students to understand that you are someone they can talk to during free time.
    – Be careful never to “out” an LGBTQ student, meaning that if a student is not open in their sexual orientation and they share that with you, be careful not to share that information with others.  Sometimes being out can be more dangerous than being closeted.
  5. Keep an eye out for bullying and act to stop it
    – It’s tough to know the best way to respond to bullying.  Sometimes it means interrupting bullying as it happens.  Sometimes it means talking to the bullies or the bullied afterward.
    – In responding to bullying, be careful to not make the target out to be the weak one in the situation, as that can make bullying worse in the long run.
  6. Respect the needs and wishes of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual students
    – Support them in their decisions and their needs, helping them to make safe choices that will help them be happy and fully realized as a young person.
    – Questions like, “Are you sure?”  “Could this be a phase?” are not helpful.
  7. Respect the needs and wishes of Transgender students
    – Respect the names students wish to be called and the pronouns they prefer.  When unsure, ask with empathy and respect.
    – Respect the clothing choices students make, supporting them as they figure out how they want to perform their gender.
  8. Encourage respectful disagreement on issues of sexual identity
    – Dialogue and discussion inside and outside the classroom are helpful and healthy so long as respectful.  Don’t shut down conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity, but make sure to facilitate the conversation down inclusive roads and correct misconceptions.
  9. Recognize that you’re not an expert.  You will make mistakes and occasionally be insensitive.
    – Humble yourself and apologize where necessary; learn from your mistakes, and always try to broaden your understanding of LGBTQ issues so you can best support all of your students.
  10. Acknowledge that building an inclusive community is better for everyone, and fight to make it a school-wide priority.
    – Inclusive communities experience less bullying and violence.
    – Inclusive communities are likely to boast higher achievement and are stronger school spirit.

For more ideas for building an inclusive community, check out the recommendations for positive interventions and support from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network.